Tuesday night's (March 2) last-minute switcheroo was as good a lesson as any for the "American Idol" top 20 that if you want to be a star, you have to be ready to roll with it. The top 10 women were supposed to perform, but due to an undisclosed illness for Crystal Bowersox — who was under a doctor's orders to take it easy — the men had to step it up and take the stage a night earlier than usual.
After last week's poorly received first round of live performances, the boys could only go up, so it was anyone's guess what kind of firepower they were going to bring. Another change? Ellen DeGeneres was on the move again, migrating from her spot at the far end of the table — as distant from foil Simon Cowell as possible — to the middle, right up against Kara DioGuardi, with Randy Jackson providing the bookend.
None of the guys used the lineup change as an excuse, and Lee Dewyze and Alex Lambert suddenly surged to the top of the heap as early front-runners Andrew Garcia and Casey James underwhelmed again.
Big Michael Lynche, 26, was first, revealing that in addition to working his enormous guns, he went to a performing-arts high school and has always been a musical-theater geek. After not blowing anyone away last week, Lynche came back with James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," showing off a previously shaded soulful side and intense performing chops, working the stage and the microphone stand while hitting some powerful sustained notes at the song's end.
Randy said Lynche finally showed some fire in his eyes, giving the personal trainer a standing ovation and dubbing him an R&B star, while Ellen said he set the bar for the night. DioGuardi didn't really get it until Tuesday night but was finally won over. "Tonight, you went from being a singer to someone who could potentially be a great artist," she said. Cowell said the new dad transformed from a pussycat to a lion in one week and that, despite choosing a nearly 50-year-old song, he didn't sound dated and finally found his groove.
Chicago's John Park had a lot of ground to make up after a crash-and-burn performance last week, going more contemporary with John Mayer's "Gravity," a spare ballad he performed while seated on a stool. Though he showed moments of soul, overall, Park proved again that his unpredictable voice is not strong enough to take him to the finish line.
The vibe was better, but Randy dubbed it flat. Ellen and Kara agreed that it was way better but that Park wasn't really taking any chances. Simon predicted Park's singing group Purple Haze would soon have him back. "It was what I call a 'so what?' performance," he said, calling it inauthentic and not star-quality.
Cowboy cutie Casey James, who said he'd never watched "Idol" before trying out because he hasn't had a TV for most of his life, chose a song that has been performed a number of times on the show, hoping that his version of Gavin DeGraw's "I Don't Want To Be" would stand out. Ripping it up on electric guitar, James added some Southern-boogie rock energy to the tune, amping up the arrangement with a ripping solo at the end and some sandpaper in his vocal, which was a bit flat at points.
Kara tried to downplay the cougar-mance aspect of their relationship and said James took two big steps backward because "everything that was distinct about you — upfront, center, honest — went away." Instead, all she saw was him jamming on guitar and not really bringing the vocals. Cowell agreed, saying he turned into a generic bar singer. Randy loved the Jimi Hendrix vibe and said it was the right choice for the would-be rocker.
Bundle-of-nerves Alex Lambert, 19, could go nowhere but up after his knee-knocking first live show and might have endeared himself to America by revealing that he writes lyrics in his Native American-sounding made-up boyhood language. He went with John Legend's "Everybody Knows," appearing a tad more comfortable strumming his acoustic guitar and showing off some impressively ragged vocals that suggested he could be a force on the show if he gets over his stage fright.
Randy saw a huge improvement over last week and Ellen, well, she brought back that unripe-banana metaphor and marveled at how quickly Lambert amped up the confidence. "There isn't a person out there who isn't rooting for you," Kara added, saying he had an incredible, very recordable voice that producers would love to get their hands on. Simon told him to start showing a killer instinct and acting like he can win this thing.
One of this season's wild cards, "Nutcracker" veteran Todrick Hall, made sure you couldn't compare him to Tina Turner's original version of "What's Love Got to Do With It?," smoothing out the song into a velvety bedroom ballad that exploded into a soul shouter midway through.
The falsetto run at the end worked for Randy, but again he faulted Hall for trying too hard to change the arrangement. "Just sing it, 'cause you can sing — for once," he pleaded. Despite Simon's criticism that he looks like a dancer trying to sing, Ellen said she wanted to see him move more and use his strength, predicting the old-ish song would not get him votes. "I would say, Todrick, move but don't sing, because this is not working out at all for you," Simon said simply, comparing it to a corny, irrelevant theme-park performance. "I don't know what's going through your head at the moment, but you are getting this completely and utterly wrong."
Jermaine Sellers told us he wasn't ashamed to rock his dinosaur onesie, but when it came time to sing, he took it way down for a smooth-jazz take on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." The front wedge haircut didn't work and the vocals swung from sanctified to kind of screechy.
"One trick that means something," Kara counseled about Hall's piling on of vibrato, falsetto and wacky runs. Though it had a couple of bright moments, Jackson said it was too fussy and not great. Ellen, of course, loved the onesie and praised his style, but said it was just off. Mostly, the judges are frustrated and disappointed that Hall waters down great songs like Gaye's by messing with them too much.
We found out that Andrew Garcia has been a breakdancer his whole life and that he has a soft spot for James Morrison's ballad "You Give Me Something." Sitting awkwardly on a stool, Garcia slipped further still from his front-runner status, serving up some powerfully gritty vocals undercut by a stiff delivery.
Making the wrong song choice two weeks in a row is a sign of a looming problem, Simon said, expressing his disappointment once again. Ellen liked it and overlooked the pitch problems, though Randy thought it was just not the right kind of song for Garcia's voice. Perhaps he peaked too early with his cover of Paula Abdul's "Straight Up," Kara suggested, saying he's been going down ever since and not surprising the panel.
Amateur shutterbug Aaron Kelly, 16, chose the Temptations' "My Girl," looking only slightly more comfortable onstage than last week and showing off his soulful, if a bit shaky, chops and underdeveloped falsetto. For Jackson, it was 200 percent better than last week even with the iffy second half of the song, and DioGuardi praised Kelly's versatility and consistency. DeGeneres called the song forgettable, and Cowell said it went all over the place, suggesting that he model himself after Justin Bieber and decide what kind of artist he wants to be. "You've got to come on here week after week, tell us, tell America, 'This is the kind of artist I want to be,' not just sing that kind of song," he said.
One of 10 kids, Tim Urban knows what it's like to get ganged up on, especially after his epic fail last week. He went with "Come On Get Higher" by singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson, and while the strummy number was better, Urban still fell flat more often than not and just didn't do the trick.
There was nothing special for Randy, who called it too karaoke, and Ellen thought he might be better off acting on a show like "Glee" given his lack of charisma onstage mixed with a winning cutie-pie appeal. The song choice was right for Kara, but there was nothing special. In a shocker, Cowell said it was a marked improvement and that the song was more relevant, eliciting the by-now-signature Urban look of utter disbelief.
Paint salesman Lee Dewyze was revealed as a juvenile-delinquent-gone-good, and he continued his winning ways with Hinder's "Lips of an Angel." Giving the hard-rock ballad a Black Crowes-style soul/rock makeover and wrapping his gritty vocals all over the tune, he emerged as a force to be reckoned with after a second straight solid performance.
Pitch problems aside, Randy and Ellen liked it, even though Dewyze just stood there, which came across as passionate and engaged for the newest judge. Kara said she could hear him on the radio right now and praised his commercial sound and look, with Cowell again telling Lee he's "head and shoulders" above the rest of the guys, if only he'd stop looking so terrified. "You may be the one to beat," he said.
With or without Bowersox, the ladies will take the stage Wednesday night.
How do you think the guys did on Tuesday night? Who killed it? Who blew it? Let us know by leaving your comments below.
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